EPA rules offer us little benefitMake no mistake, the Clean Air Act has been costly for business and industry, but not without cause. Forty years ago, when President Richard Nixon signed it into law, there were clear health risks associated with air quality, especially in industrial states. Remember acid rain? Much of that cost has been justified in better health for people and the environment.
By: The Bismarck Tribune, The Jamestown Sun
Make no mistake, the Clean Air Act has been costly for business and industry, but not without cause. Forty years ago, when President Richard Nixon signed it into law, there were clear health risks associated with air quality, especially in industrial states. Remember acid rain? Much of that cost has been justified in better health for people and the environment.
However, the proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules for power plant emissions are not justified in terms of reducing health risks for North Dakotans or in significantly improving protections for the state’s environment.
The key element at stake here is mercury. It can be found in trace amounts in the lignite coal burned in the state’s power plants, and it goes up the stack in those same trace amounts.
It can be removed from emissions by a mostly chemical process.
Basin Electric Power Cooperative estimates that technological improvements necessary to remove the mercury would cost $3 million per generating unit, plus another $2 million to $3 million in annual operations and maintenance costs. That cost gets passed on to consumers.
Mercury shows up in North Dakota’s environment in fish. It “bioaccumulates,” or big fish eat smaller fish, and with each meal up the food chain more mercury can gather.
According to the North Dakota Health Department, “Young children, developing fetuses and breastfed babies are the most at risk. Small amounts of mercury can damage a brain that is just starting to form or grow ... even so, there are no known cases of illness from eating fish caught in North Dakota.” The state Health Department, to be super safe, offers a guide for mothers and young children for eating North Dakota-caught fish, based on the size of the fish, number of meals per month and where the fish was caught.
North Dakotans have lived with this limited risk for 40 years with little concern. Power plant operations in the state have met existing EPA standards, and Basin, for example, has spent nearly $16 billion for added environmental controls and spends nearly $150 million annually operating those controls.
The power cooperative may also face increasingly stringent haze regulations and feel pressure to reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
Better that Congress step in and establish policies that make sense for North Dakota. They should be standards based on current scientific knowledge and reasonable cost-benefit ratios in regard to health. Better that than a one-size-fits-all edict from a federal agency that takes a narrow environmental view and adds expense with little prospect for return.
But Congress seems an unlikely tool for getting work done. Numerous amendments in the U.S. Senate that would have backed the EPA off its mission failed recently. Sens. John Hoeven and Kent Conrad each voted in favor of one or another of these amendments. President Barack Obama also threatened a veto of any efforts to rein in the EPA on emissions. Action on greenhouse gas emissions, like Congress’ work on budgets, deficits and debt reduction, is overdue, insufficient and incomplete.
We believe North Dakota power plants operate within responsible bounds. Further, North Dakotans have a better sense of their health and the state’s environment, based on the scientific findings of the state Health Department, than do Washington-based federal technocrats attempting to write rules that apply effectively to West Virginia, Ohio and North Dakota, all at the same time. Congress ought to give the states control of setting and monitoring standards, within a defined range.
Unfortunately, Washington appears to be working in the dark; maybe light from electricity generated by burning lignite coal could show the way.